The governor and the State Legislature have struggled in recent years to balance the state budget. But the problems they dealt with in the past will seem easy compared with what they will face in trying to shape a 2004 budget.
In addition, their job has been made even more difficult by a June ruling of the state Court of Appeals ordering the state to provide a better education for New York City youngsters. The court said the state's financing formula for public schools denies poor and minority students their constitutional right to a "sound basic education." The court ordered the state to come up with a remedy by July 30, 2004.
The court undoubtedly was correct in its finding. But it did not provide the remedy, nor should it be expected to do so since courts are not supposed to enact legislation. The state's highest court left it to the Legislature to decide how to pay for fixing a system that it said "allocates to city schools a share of state aid that does not bear a perceptible relation to the needs of city students."
One can't argue with the court's premise, but how does the state answer the basic question of finding the dollars to provide the remedy? And how many dollars will be needed?
Although the court specifically stated that its decision was limited to New York City, the reality is that it will be extremely difficult for the Legislature to increase funding for New York City and not for other parts of the state. The Buffalo School District has major fiscal problems, and our state legislators would be remiss if they didn't strongly argue for the same relief that may be provided to New York City.
The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, one of the principal plaintiffs in the suit that led to the decision, already has called for the establishment of a commission to correct school funding formulas for New York City. It is noteworthy that the spokesman also mentioned a similar need for the rest of the state.
Finding more money for New York City's schools opens Pandora's box. There's been talk that a possible solution could be to shift some funding from upstate districts that now are recipients of significant school funding. Suburban lawmakers most certainly won't sit still for that. Typical is the comment from State Sen. Dale Volker, a respected member of the Legislature from Western New York, who said, "For upstate New York, we consider (such a move) a disaster."
The state is facing a possible deficit of more than $5 billion in 2004, and with all the lawmakers facing re-election campaigns that year, there seems little likelihood of their voting to increase taxes. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he doesn't see the need to change the school aid formulas to satisfy the court order. But he didn't spell out how he would meet the court's mandate.
Other Assembly Democrats have said that the only answer will be to change the statewide financing formula. "Significant surgery" is needed, according to Steven Sanders, the Assembly chairman of the Education Committee.
The Court of Appeals ordered the state to calculate the actual cost of providing a sound basic education in New York City, but didn't say the additional funding had to come from the state. It is interesting to note that the court's majority admitted that other school districts might now bring similar lawsuits on school funding. Was this in effect an invitation to such actions?
Back in January 2001, Supreme Court Justice Leland DeGrasse ruled that the state should determine the cost of providing a sound basic education in every district of the state and revise the state aid formula accordingly. This decision, however, was overturned by the court's Appellate Division, which said he had given too broad an interpretation to what was a "sound basic education." That could be one of the problems that lie ahead in complying with the Court of Appeals ruling. How do you define a sound basic education?
The governor and both houses of the State Legislature are in for a rough ride as they try to comply with the Court of Appeals order. There will be challenges of all kinds and vigorous debate on both sides in the Legislature.
At this stage of the game, it's hard to fathom that the court's July 2004 deadline will be met. It's possible that the July date will have to be extended as the parties struggle to arrive at a solution.